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The Theatreguide.London Review

Road Show
Union Theatre  February 2016

Road Show is almost certainly Stephen Sondheim's worst musical (its only competition being Assassins), and it appears here in a production that does little to disguise its flaws or enhance its few virtues. 

Sondheim fans will want to see it to fill a gap in their knowledge of the master's works, but there is too little to attract anyone else. 

Brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner (their names consistently misspelled in the programme) were minor American cultural celebrities of 100 years ago. Wilson was a flashy New York bon vivant, Broadway and Hollywood writer, manager of prize fighters and celebrity restaurants, much-quoted wit and general conman. 

The more plodding Addison only found success in his late forties as architect and designer to the super-rich, building garishly ostentatious Florida mansions for those with far more money than taste. 

The two came together in the 1920s with a plan to build an entire Addison-designed city in Florida but were broken by the collapse of the Florida land bubble and the general economy. 

Something about their story caught Sondheim's eye as early as the 1950s, and he and frequent collaborator John Weidman wrestled with the story through the 1990s, taking it through several workshops, tryouts, title changes and complete rewrites of the book, and never conquering its problems. 

In 2008 they allowed New York director John Doyle to reshape the material yet again, and it was that version that finally reached London in 2011 and which producer-director Phil Willmott tinkers with a little further here. 

The trouble is that, despite extensive fiddling with history and exaggeration of the differences between the brothers (Addison was as much of a crook as Wilson), there's no story here. 

Weidman and Sondheim evidently saw something mythic in the brothers' lives, some reflection of the American Dream a century ago, but they either weren't able to find and communicate it or it got lost in the many rewrites. 

The brothers go out into the world as young men and have what plays like a randomly-ordered string of adventures. They take turns disappearing from the stage for 20 minutes or so while the plot focuses on the other for a while, and there seems no point to it all. 

Even more disappointing, the material does not seem to have inspired Sondheim as composer or lyricist. None of his signature wit is evident in the words, while the melodies sadly hint at an ageing composer running out of musical ideas. 

Too many of Road Show's songs sound too much like other Sondheim songs we've heard before, as there are what seem like note-for-note melodic quotations from Pacific Overtures, Into The Woods and Sunday In The Park. 

Those songs that don't remind you of others you've heard before are too anonymous and merely time-fillers to make any impression at all. (Ironically, the one best song in the score The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened was actually dropped from an early version in the rewriting and only put back by John Doyle in 2008.)

Director Phil Willmott keeps things moving with a cinematic flow but creates more problems than he solves. I think it is his idea to frame the whole show with the aged Addison writing his memoirs, but the device offers no new perspective. 

Howard Jenkins (Addison) and Andre Refig (Wilson) both sing and act well, but aren't individualised enough to create much of a dynamic between them, and Willmott has oddly chosen to play down one element that the writer and composer took great pains to add to the story in their rewrites, Addison's homosexuality. 

And that one excellent song is oddly broken up so that it goes by almost unnoticed. 

This is one strictly for the dedicated Sondheim buffs, and there are enough of them to keep it running through its scheduled month.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Road Show - Union Theatre 2016


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